Draft Experts Think Okeke Could Be Steal of Draft

by John Denton

ORLANDO – A knee injury suffered in this past spring’s NCAA Tournament will likely keep versatile forward Chuma Okeke off the floor for a matter of months in the season ahead for the Orlando Magic.

Still, that injury did little to dampen the buzz over the Magic brazenly using the No. 16 pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft to corral a player who was a dominant force in Auburn University’s run to the Final Four.

Nabbing a talent such as the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Okeke – a player who throttled Tennessee in the SEC title game and dominated top-seeded North Carolina in third-round play of the NCAA Tournament – has some draft experts wondering if the Magic might have pulled off a major coup with the 16th pick of the night.

``Chuma Okeke has a chance to be the steal of the draft here,’’ ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz said. ``If he didn’t go down with that ACL injury, I think we’re talking about him as a sure-fire lottery pick. Six-foot-(eight), 230 pounds, a 7-foot foot wingspan, defends multiple positions, can space the floor offensively and has a strong feel for the game.

``He was really the glue that held that Auburn team together. He’s unselfish, he moves the ball, he knows his role,’’ Schmitz added. ``In today’s NBA, this is the guy you want. He is the prototype, 6-7 combo forward. Chuma Okeke, this is a huge win for the Orlando Magic. Even though he has to sit out, I think this is a monster steal.’’

After picking in the lottery each of the past six seasons, the Magic sat at No. 16 on Thursday by virtue of their 42-40 record and run to the playoffs. President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond – two basketball lifers who have a history of finding hidden gems in the middle (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and latter stages (Paschal Siakam and Malcom Brogdon) of the draft – were delighted that Okeke was still available at No. 16. Okeke’s ACL tear to his left knee caused no pause for a Magic franchise confident that the forward can become a standout at the NBA level in time.

``We’ll get into the timetables more once he gets here and we speak to the doctors and talk to him. But (everyone) knows the timetable of ACLs,’’ said Weltman, who conducted his third NBA draft for the Magic since taking over control of the Orlando front office in 2017. ``We expect him to be back some time during the season and we’ll let that kind of, as we always say, happen as it happens. There’s no rush, there’s no rush whatsoever. We are drafting him to be a long-term player for the Orlando Magic.’’

The Magic have been down this path before with promising young players battling injuries, and the front office and coaching staff were plenty patient. Orlando made Jonathan Isaac the No. 6 in the 2017 NBA Draft and saw him play just 27 games as a rookie because of a series of ankle injuries. The Magic allowed Isaac to grow his game and improve his body as a gradual pace and this past season he showed signs of become the franchise fixture the Magic believe he will eventually become.

A year ago, the Magic took Mo Bamba with the No. 6 pick. However, the franchise shut the 7-foot center down for the season in late January when he suffered a tibial stress fracture in his left leg. Bamba, 20, has since made a full recovery and has been a regular at the Magic’s practice headquarters this summer while working on his game.

That franchise also took the same approach with point guard Markelle Fultz after trading for him in February. The Magic didn’t play Fultz after acquiring him at the trade deadline, instead allowing him to focus on his recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome. Like Bamba, Fultz is spending his summer in Orlando working getting back to 100 percent.

Okeke made a huge development jump between his freshman and sophomore years, and by the end of this past season, he had evolved into a dominant force for Auburn. This season, he had four 20-point efforts, seven double-doubles, eight games with at least three made 3-pointers and six games with four or more steals.

He saved his finest performances for the Tigers’ biggest games. Against Tennessee and first-round pick Grant Williams in the SEC tournament title game, Okeke had 18 points, 13 rebounds, five 3-pointers and three steals. Against North Carolina in Auburn’s Sweet 16 game, Okeke was never better, battering the Tar Heels for 20 points, 11 rebounds, three 3-pointers, two assists and two steals.

Okeke’s dominant play against Tennessee and North Carolina caught the attention of ESPN draft analyst Jay Bilas, who raved about Okeke’s versatility after he was picked by the Magic on Thursday.

``A stretch four, who can shoot it, very good defensively. He can switch out and he’s a very good offensive rebounder, and he plays his tail off,’’ Bilas raved. ``When I saw him play in Maui earlier this year, you’re watching this team that’s full of good athletes, going ‘Well, that’s the guy that’s going to be in the NBA first.’ Now did I see him going number 16? I didn’t. I had him top of the second round, but still he’s a (strong) player.

``It’s a little surprising he went this high, but that shows you where the NBA is headed, because he can shoot it, he can guard, he can run, and he can play all over the floor. You can move him anywhere.’’

The only negative from Auburn’s landmark victory over North Carolina on March 29 was the ACL tear that Okeke suffered late in the night. He soon after had surgery on the knee and is nearly three months into the rehab process that is expected to last nearly a year.

``I’m doing good in my rehab and right now I’m just strengthening my quad back up, getting my leg back right and getting my strength back,’’ Okeke said. ``The doctor said I look good just two months into my rehab, so I’m looking real good.’’

The Magic figure Okeke will be real good once he is fully recovered from the knee injury. While some have wondered if the Magic could have traded down or waited until the second round of Thursday’s draft to get the talented, but injured forward, Weltman wasn’t willing to take that chance. His fear was that some team with multiple first-round picks – such as Boston, Atlanta or New Orleans – would have nabbed Okeke before the Magic could have gotten him.

Schmitz, ESPN’s draft analyst, feels the Magic acted accordingly in grabbing a player who dominated college basketball when the games mattered the most.

``He is an analytics darling in a lot of ways,’’ Schmitz said. ``ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton, the genius of the numbers, had him ranked No. 2 (among available players).

``So, this is a guy that analytics models really liked, and basketball people clearly liked in terms of his versatility, in terms of his ability to shoot the ball, and his feel for the game,’’ Schmitz added. ``The ACL injury probably dropped him a little bit. We thought it was going to drop him further. But with modern medicine nowadays, I think he’ll be back in no time. This is a guy who is really going to help the Orlando Magic at the next level.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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